Introduction to Open Slate

Back to Open Slate Home Page Date: 2003.01.05 (2007.11.21)

Welcome to the Revolution

The Open Slate project takes an unconventional view of computer design and use. I am tempted to say radical, but that word might put off some of the very people I am trying to reach. People who try to do the right thing, to never be the nail that sticks out. People who avoid anything having to do with change, much less revolution.

If you are one of these people, do not be alarmed. A complete implementation of the Open Slate Project will take years. In the meantime no flags will be burned, no buildings occupied, no highways shut down. Change will come, sometimes rapid, sometimes slowly. In the end, the educational system will not be what it is today. This is why I say Revolution. To fully grasp the nature of Open Slate one must be able to see into the future, and to recognize the radical changes it will being about.

Do not be alarmed if none of this makes sense right away. My biggest mistake in trying to explain Open Slate has been to assume that the value of the project is self evident. People process new ideas by matching them up with what they already know. "How is that different than such-and-such," they will ask, and their question is less a request for information than a defense of their knowledge territory. The problem is that there a lot of things to confuse this project with, from the Palm Pilot to distance learning. It takes time for the complete picture to become clear. In the meantime, hold onto this thought:

Open Slate is not like anything else,
Open Slate will change everything.

Platform and Content

The Open Slate project consists of two parts, platform and content.



The content part of the Open Slate Project is called Chalk Dust. It consists of a mixture of textbook-like content delivered by some standard means, and self-contained applications. The principle application for delivering content will be Super Chalk Board.

The Chalk Dust process, how content is developed and reviewed, is described in a separate piece, Introduction to Chalk Dust. What follows here are thoughts about the challenges it will face.

Stormy Weather

Back in the 80's personal computers were hailed as the Next Big Thing in business and education. This prediction came true for businesses, but in schools, success has been so limited that some call it a failure. In his book Silicon Snake Oil Clifford Stoll challenges many assumptions about the value of computers and networks, and his views have fueled a strident revolt against the time and money spent on bringing computers into classrooms. (Mr. Stoll is the author of The Cuckoo's Egg, the story of how he caught German spies breaking into computers at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.)

I believe that the reason computers in education have met this kind of backlash is the failure of the software development process. Specifically, the commercial model. The needs of businesses have been met by the commercial software marketplace, so much so that networked personal computers are vital to today's business operations. Nothing similar has happened in education. The best that schools have done has been to make personal computers and business applications the subject of study.

The Open Slate project offers a radically new approach to software development called Chalk Dust, which intends to overcome the limitations of the commercial model. The Chalk Dust process leverages the open source development model, the peer review process used in the academic world, and a mentor system that connects students and teachers across all experience levels.

Self-made computers

A key factor in the success of Chalk Dust is the relationship between students and computers. Today, the model at the K-12 level is to have computers strategically located around campus (often in labs), supplemented by a family computer at home. In the Open Slate model, every student has a portable computer of their own, which they carry with them at all times. Where students now carry backpacks filled with books, in the Open Slate model all that would be in those backpacks is a slate computer.

One of the more controversial goals of the Open Slate project is to have students build their own computers. America has become a nation of consumers. Think about it. What have you used in the last week that you made yourself? Clothes? Fishing poll? Cake? Bedspread? Biscuits? Jam? Beer? Having students build their slate will create ownership, which in turn will result in being more responsible for its care. When it breaks, they will know how to fix it. Expert students will surface who create new designs for cases, just as today individuals create new themes and skins for popular software. Slate design could be the subject of industrial design classes and the basis for inter-school competitions.

Networking is a fundamental part of the Open Slate model. At school, connectivity is achieved with a wireless network. Any existing Internet service will work at home. It won't be long before cellular phone service is cheap enough to allow it to be used as well, making the slate useful from anywhere.

When every student has their own computer the potential for educational software suddenly becomes enormous. If you are like most people, when you saw potential you thought market. No, I do not mean to say that ubiquitous slate computers will create a multi-million dollar software market. What I mean is that the opportunities for integrating computers into the educational process become enormous.

A key property of Chalk Dust applications is that they are open-source and available for free. The elimination of licensing fees is the only sane way to manage software distributions that reach every student. As attractive as zero cost is, what will prove to be more important in the long run is the access to source code.

Open-Source textbooks

Ultimately, Chalk Dust applications will replace textbooks. Web sites have already begun to compete with traditional print media as sources of information, and will continue to be a valuable resource in the Open Slate world. In fact, a Chalk Dust application could be built using web technology. What distinguishes Chalk Dust is the systematic inclusion of advisors, editors and reviewers, and the use of college students as developers.

What can you do?

Gary Dunn

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